Computers, Networks and Education
By Alan C. Kay  

CHILDREN AT A COMPUTER in the Open School are clearly engrossed in their work. If used properly, the author notes, Computers can be "powerful amplifiers, extending the resch and depth of the learners."


you never understand anything until you understand it in more than one way. Computers can be programmed so that "facts" retrieved in one window an a screen will automatically cause supporting and opposing arguments to be retrieved in a halo of surrounding win-dows. An idea can be shown in prose, as an image, viewed from the back and the front, inside or out. Important concepts from many different sources can be collected in one place.
Fourth, the heart of computing is building a dynamic model of an idea through simulation. Computers can go beyond static representations that can at best argue; they can deliver sprightly simulations that portray and test conflicting theories. T'he ability to "See" with these stronger representations of the world will be as important an advance as was the transition to language, mathematics and science from images and common sense.
A fifth benefit is that Computers can be engineered to be reflective. The model-building capabilities of the computer should enable mindlike processes to be built and should allow designers to create flexible "agents." These agents will take on their owner's goals, confer about strategies (asking questions of users as well as answering their queries) and, by reasoning, fabricate goals of their own.
Finally, pervasively networked Computers will soon become a universal library, the age-old dream of those who love knowledge. Resources now beyond individual means, such as supercomputers for heavy-duty Simulation, satellites and huge compilations of data, will be potentially accessible to anyone.

For children, the enfranchising effects of these benefits could be especially exciting. The cducator John Dewey noted that urban children in the 20th century can participate only in the form, not the content, of most adult activities; compare the understanding gained by a City girl playing nurse with her doll to that gained by a girl caring for a live calf on a farm. Computers are already helping children to participate in content to some extent. How students from preschool to graduate school use their Computers is similar to how computer professionals use theirs. They interact, simulate, contrast and criticize, and they create knowledge to share with others.
When massively interconnected, intimate Computers become commonplace, the relation of humans to their information carriers will once again change qualitatively. As ever more information becomes available, much of it conflicting, the ability to critically assess the value and validity of many different points of view and to recognize the contexts out of which they arise will become increasingly crucial. This facility has been extremely important since books became widely available, but making comparisons has been quite difficult. Now comparing should become easier, if people take advantage of the positive values Computers offer,
Computer designers can help as well. Networked computer media will initially Substitute convenience for verisimilitude, and quantity and speed for exposition and thoughtfulness. Yet well-designed Systems can also retain and expand on the profound ideas of the past, making available revolutionary ways to think about the world. As Postman has pointed out, what is required is a kind of guerilla warfare, not to stamp out new media (or old) but to create a parallel consciousness about media--one that gently whispers the debits and credits of any representation and points the way to the "food."
For example, naive acceptance of onscreen information can be combated by designs that automatically, gather both the requested information and instances in which a displayed "fact" does not seem to hold.
An on-line library that retrieves only what it is requested produces tunnel vision and misses the point of libraries, by wandering in the stacks, people inevitably find gems they did not know enough to seek. Software could easily provide for browsing and other serendipitous ventures.

Today facts are often divorced from their original content. This fragmentation can be countered by programs that put separately retrieved ideas into sequences that lead from one thought to the next. And the temptation to "clay push," to create things or collect information by trial and error, can be fought by organizational tools that help people form goals for their searches. If computer users begin with a strong image of what they want to accomplish, they can drive in a fairly straightforward way through their initial construction and rely an subsequent passes to criticize, debug and change.
If the personally owned book was one of the main shapers of the Renaissance notion of the individual, then the pervasively netvvorked computer of the future should shape humans who are healthy skeptics from an early age. Any argument can be tested against the arguments of others and by appeal to Simulation. Philip Morrison, a learned physicist, has a fine vision of a skeptical world: "...genuine trust implies the opportunity, of checking wherever it may be wanted.... That is why it is the evidence, the experience itself and the argument that gives it Order, that we need to share with one another, and not just the unsupported final Claim."
I have no doubt that as pervasively networked intimate Computers become common, many of us will enlarge our points of view. When enough people change, modern culture will once again be transformed, as it was during the Renaissance. But given the current state of educational values, I fear that, just as in the 1500s, great numbers of people will not avail themselves of the opportunity for growth and will be left behind. Can society afford to let that happen again?


FURTHER READING

UNDERSTANDING MEDIA: THE EXTENSIONS OF MAN Marshall McLuhan. McGraw-Hill, 1965.

TOWARD A THEORY OF INSTRUCTION. Jerome S. Bruner. Harvard University Press. 1966.

THE STRUCTURE OF SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTIONS. Thomas S. Kuhn. University of Chicago Press, 1970.

AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH: PUBLIC DISCOURSE IN THE AGE OF SHOW BUSINESS. Neil Postman. Viking Penguin, 1985.

THE RING OF TRUTH AN INQUIRY INTO HOW WE KNOW WHAT WE KNOW Philip Morrison and Phylis Morrison. Random House, 1989.